What a film of magnificent contradictions Toni Erdmann is. Here’s a film of pristine simplicity drawn out to epic length. A looney comedy that burns very, very slowly. A film of raw naturalism that hinges on strokes of whimsical lunacy. A film that juxtaposes the tragic rigors of buttoned-down everyday life against the momentary joys of playful goofiness. And it’s applied to that most timeworn of all push-pull battles: the parent-child struggle. Maren Ade’s film maintains quite a delicate balance – the house of cards could easily collapse at any moment. Its brilliance is how manages the madness even as it teeters before our very eyes. That kind of tension is the definition of great cinema.
Oddly enough, despite said tension, the film’s narrative is entirely unassuming, its sprawling nature lending it an air of plotless verite. Hard to imagine a script like this making it into the hands of an American studio head; if it did, the concept would be morphed into a swift, madcap yuckfest about the importance of cutting loose. In this German iteration, Toni Erdmann uses the notion of “cutting loose” as a means, not an end – the conflict isn’t as simple, and the solution isn’t as clean. Writer-director Ade drops us into a scenario with no pronounced beginning, cuts out with no demonstrable resolution, and spends every moment in between studying intricacies of character and mood, following the rhythms of real life in all its fits and starts. The injection of sitcom elements within this naturalistic context serves to only further highlight that the conventions of the everyday grind, boring as they may seem, are every bit as ridiculous as a guy walking around with fake teeth and a bad wig.
That is precisely what happens here, right down to the silly get-up. “Toni Erdmann” is the fictional creation of Winifred (Peter Simonischek), one of a handful of characters he plays, donning low-key costumes to punch up life’s mundanity. Winifred has a daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller), that he rarely sees. She’s been busy climbing the corporate ladder, currently serving as a transitional consultant, which is a fancy way of saying she is smoothing over the process of outsourcing jobs, ruining folks’ lives for the sake of uber-efficiency. It’s a soulless grind, torturous in its isolation. Not that she complains; she’s more likely to quietly suppress tears before swiftly steeling herself and carrying on.
Winifred becomes acutely aware of the crushing formalism of the corporatocracy when pays Ines an unexpected visit just as she embarks on a delicate outsourcing venture in Bucharest. He tags along for awkward company social events, a casual wedge between Ines and her stuffy colleagues. Sensing the interminable rut that his daughter’s life has become, Winifred steps away, but promptly returns as Toni Erdmann, a would-be sophisticate with a shaggy jet black wig and distractingly toothy grin. Mr. Erdmann is, at varying points, a diplomat, or a consultant, or a life coach. At every point he offsets the social dynamic within a given situation. He’s a trickster, though he’s not trying to fool anyone – not as though anyone would really buy such transparent shtick anyway. The goal is to take the air out of overinflated pomposity, to create a memorable moment by injecting some capriciousness into an otherwise predictable slog. He views it as an elixir of sorts for Ines, whose ascent of the corporate ladder is actually a descent into inhumane toxicity. Of course, the Toni Erdmann character yields, shall we say, “mixed” results at best, always causing a stir but rarely curing the environment, threatening to break Winifred’s relationship with Ines even as he hopes to solidify it.
Toni Erdmann almost entirely on its characters delivering the requisite pathos to make this material sing. There isn’t really a “story” at play so much as a psychological tussle between father and daughter, a dance of varying speeds and tones. Huller and Simonischek carry the duel off brilliantly, their dry stolidity carefully attempting to veil the simmering emotional conflict…and most of the time failing. Ade lets the characters dictate the tone and pacing of each scene, playing the lunacy against the reality, staying grounded but nearly springing into madness. Not every sequence is consequential; not every seeming plot thread is followed through. Certain scenarios are repetitive. Sometimes there’s no forward motion at all – just the ebbing and flowing of familial tension. What results is a relatively simple father-daughter tale expanded to 162 minutes, which will clearly test the limits of mainstream audience attention spans, but then this was never intended as the efficient crowd-pleaser of the year. It’s a film that moves at the speed of life, capturing all its ambling normalcy and savoring the intrusions of the unexpectedly bizarre.